Stefan Collini

Stefan Collini is the author of Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, What Are Universities For? and The Nostalgic Imagination: History in English Criticism. His edition of Orwell’s Selected Essays was published in 2021. He is an emeritus professor of intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge.

Beebology: What next for the BBC?

Stefan Collini, 21 April 2022

Attitudes​ to the BBC are, for the most part, spirit-sappingly predictable. Politicians of all parties believe it is biased against them. One powerful lobby claims it is a hotbed of radicals bent on undermining national identity, another that it is the mouthpiece of the establishment. Some critics denounce the licence fee as insulating the BBC against the bracing winds of competition, while others complain that the corporation has already abandoned its public service remit in the search for profit. One chorus takes up the theme that programming remains ‘elitist’ and ‘middle class’, another that it has become demotic and debased. Many people seem to feel that so long as The Archers and the shipping forecast are left untouched, then all is right with the world; others seem to think that the problem is precisely that The Archers and the shipping forecast have been left untouched for too long. It’s not easy to come up with any really new complaints about the BBC. Faced with this repetitive litany of charge and countercharge, what contribution can historians make?

It​ can be hard, from this distance, to see what all the fuss was about. In his day (a day that, unfortunately for him, ended a decade or so before his death in 1946, a month short of his 80th birthday), H.G. Wells was one of the world’s leading literary and intellectual celebrities. Hailed as ‘a man of genius’ on the appearance of his breakthrough book, The Time Machine...

We are asked to believe in a world in which individual agents are in full possession of undivided selves, unshaped by social determinants, and able to realise outcomes simply by willing them strongly enough. It is assumed that there is an uncomplicated thing called ‘talent’ or ‘ability’, and that some people have more of it than others. It is also assumed – pretty much as a fact of nature, it seems – that some people will make more ‘effort’ and work ‘harder’ than others. Meritocracy proposes to rearrange the world (shouldn’t take long) so that, for those who combine ability and effort, every day is Christmas Day. At the same time, in much recent social science, unmasking the sham of ‘equality of opportunity’ has become a familiar five-finger exercise. Study after study suggests that where people get to in life is largely determined by where they start. But the very fact that it is so easy to assemble the evidence for this truth gives the literature on the topic a slightly tired, stale character.

Book Reviewing: On the ‘TLS’

Stefan Collini, 5 November 2020

In July​ 1921, Alfred Harmsworth – by then ennobled as Viscount Northcliffe, proprietor of the Daily Mail, the Times, and numerous other publications – wrote in irritable mood to the managing director of the Times about the ‘Lit Supp’, as the Times Literary Supplement was known. He grumbled that its circulation ‘has decreased a great deal’, concluding that...

Early Kermode

Stefan Collini, 13 August 2020

Ihadn’tbeen expecting to bump into Frank in one of the remoter stacks of the Cambridge University Library. This is where they keep the back numbers of old scholarly periodicals, a morgue only likely to be violated by those, like me, who now spend their days picking over the cairns left by academic labourers seventy years ago. And Frank Kermode had been dead for almost ten years...

The Terrifying Vrooom: Empsonising

Colin Burrow, 15 July 2021

Reading an Empson essay is like being taken for a drive by an eccentric uncle in a terrifyingly powerful old banger. There are disturbing stains on the upholstery and an alarming whiff of whisky in the...

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George Orwell is commonly invoked as the ideal role model for the intellectual: feisty, independent, outspoken and contrarian, active in the public sphere, and famous. So it’s a surprise to...

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Athenian View

Michael Brock, 12 March 1992

In seven of the nine chapters in this fine book Dr Collini depicts the denizens of the Athenaeum in its great days. T.H. Huxley, having left his umbrella at Matthew Arnold’s, asks his...

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Burrinchini’s Spectre

Peter Clarke, 19 January 1984

Time was when Clio had a seamless garment: but that was before the division of labour set in. Prefixless history is now condescendingly thought of as ‘straight’ history and her...

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